Feathers are ruffled at Crosscut.com, the news website owned by the Seattle PBS outlet, KCTS-9. Part of the anxiety stems from the hiring of an experienced and reform-minded new executive editor overseeing the news parts of Crosscut and KCTS. The new top editor is M. David Lee III, a filmmaker with commercial television news management experience in Tallahassee and Green Bay. Lee arrived on October 25 and has already made one controversial call, ending (as of Nov. 30) Crosscut’s opinion section.
(Disclosure: I was the founding editor/publisher of Crosscut in 2007, though I have had no connection at all with the nonprofit website since it joined KCTS in 2015).
Crosscut’s opinion section had been recently revamped under Associate Opinion Editor Mason Bryan bringing in six diverse, paid, contributing writers. An opinion section on a news site has caused debate in the public broadcast world, since the news programs at PBS stations tend to play the news “straight” and balanced. Other PBS programs certainly feature opinions (Washington Week in Review) and hard-hitting documentaries (Frontline), but the new shows, rarely have opinionators (an exception being David Brooks). That unease over the PBS “brand” — sharply different, say, from MSNBC, may have extended to Cascadia Public Media’s board and station management. Also, Crosscut’s opinion writers tend to lean left (not surprising in Seattle), particularly a star writer, Katie Wilson, a proudly left political activist who is now gone from the site.
Executive Editor Lee explains that he wants to create a new way of doing opinion writing, and so started right off by canceling the Crosscut opinion section. He has since formed a committee (including Knute “Mossback” Berger, managing editor Mark Baumgarten, and the former associate editor for opinion Mason Bryan) to cook up a new recipe. One goal, Lee says, is to bring in more writers and sources from underrepresented communities. One interesting idea being floated is to have “Fellows,” nonprofessional writers who serve as liaisons to underserved communities. It may be that opinion writers at Crosscut need to find another way of writing for the website, or move on.
Cutting an edgy activist writer such as Katie Wilson was bound to raise suspicions about ideological purges. This Publicola story by Erica C. Barnett, for example, who speculated that KCTS’s “board members have reportedly raised concerns that the opinion section slants left. The governing board that oversees the site includes a former Seattle Times editorial board member, former Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, and Amazon global real estate VP John Schoettler.” It’s fair to note that there are also board members who tilt left, such as UW Professor Christopher Parker.
One last-minute plot twist to the Katie Wilson story is that she said that she had already independently made the “hard decision” to stop writing for Crosscut and instead focus on her tasks as head of the Transit Riders Union. Wilson jokes that she “was laid off and quit at the same time,” while also disagreeing with the decision to as the opinion section.
I asked Lee about any political pressure on him, and he replied there was “no pressure from the board.” Lee says his goals are to get familiar with the media company and Seattle (he lived here briefly years ago); to review assets and weaknesses of Crosscut and the television operation; to expand readership and viewership particularly among minorities (Lee, 56, is African American); and to implement better ways to marry aspects of Crosscut and Cascade Public Media — the written words of the website, a growing roster of podcasts, conferences and live events, and video.
Lee says that Mark Baumgarten, the popular managing editor, will stay on in that role. Lee explains the unusual dual-report structure of the newsroom he inherits this way: “We’re still working on some things; however, I oversee all of the newsroom. Baumgarten is the managing editor, so some folks, including the section editors and Mason, report to him, and Baumgarten reports to me. There are some departments that will report straight to me, but again I take responsibility for it all.” Lee himself reports to the senior vice president Rebecca Farwell, who has a long career in advising media companies and who hired Lee for the top editorial job. This confusing structure, in place for several years, means the managing editor lacks hiring/firing authority over much of the newsroom, as is typically the case.
For various reasons, the past half year at Crosscut has been described as “nerve-wracking,” according to newsroom sources. It took quite a while for Farwell to hire a new executive editor after the previous, top editor, Victor Hernandez, left after two years for a plum job at Boston’s prestigious WBUR. Baumgarten, during the search process, wore twin hats as managing editor and acting executive editor, and is said to have applied for the top job himself. (He was out of town and could not be reached for comment.) There has been a lot of turnover in the executive editor’s chair in the past six years — Lee is the sixth to occupy the hot seat — another cause for anxiety and shifting directions.
Another reason for angst has been considerable turnover in the reporting and producing staff in the past year — most notably the departure of ace political reporter David Kroman, who will be covering transportation issues for The Seattle Times.
In addition, the station’s lease at the northeast corner of Seattle Center is up in December 2024, so the media company will undergo the strains and fundraising and a move to a new location on First Hill (the old Childhaven building at 316 Broadway). Cascade Public Media CEO Rob Dunlop says of the new building, “We’re conducting our design work now and upon closing hope to begin building improvements to suit the property to our needs. Ideally, we would relocate by the end of 2023.”
Throw in lots of soul-searching about the opinion section and the complicated crossover issues with the television station, and you have a recipe for indigestion. Merging cultures, as the online Crosscut and broadcaster KCTS have done, is usually fraught.
Regardless, Crosscut has continued to grow dramatically (the marketing department claims 790,000 monthly page views) and Crosscut has added lots of staff (now 26 in the newsroom, up from six at acquisition). Another complicating factor is that KCTS has been weathering a years-long identity crisis. Some years ago, under the dynamic board chair Paula Reynolds, a prominent player in the world of major corporations, the station went on an acquisition spree, acquiring Crosscut and two other websites and toying with adding a radio division.
KCTS was shifting from being a television station with a past record of excellent documentaries to a multi-media company, renamed Cascade Public Media. Reynolds hired a new CEO, Rob Dunlop, who came from commercial television (KOMO), not the usual path for heading public broadcast stations. Subsequently Reynolds left the board and some of her powerful board recruits did likewise.
Years before the Reynolds revolution, the station had been in a decade-long defensive crouch, which Reynolds set about to correct. The station’s ambitious expansion plans, including technical upgrades and building on the successes of its locally-produced programs (Bill Nye, Above Washington) nationally, were deemed costly distractions. The board and the station management slammed on the brakes, virtually stopped doing local programming, and concentrated on digging out of that financial hole. It was hit the brakes and hit the accelerator, several times over.
All this means that Cascade Public Media, now that it once again has a lot of journalistic assets, a decisive new editor at the top, and ambition to grow, has another chance at that accelerator. That means changes, which are never an easy thing to accomplish at proudly independent, turf-protective public broadcast shops. That change is in the air seems clear from David Lee’s mantra. As he wrote introducing himself, he will be “heeding words of Yoda: Do or Do Not. There is no Try.”